Custody battle intensifies 24, 2002
By Baker Maultsby

Rutherfordton, N.C. -- Shana Muse hoped an emergency custody order would reunite her with her children Monday.

The couple keeping her children since September beat her to the punch.

Kent and Brooke Covington filed suit Monday to gain full and permanent custody of Muse's children. Judge Mark Powell of the 29th Judicial District signed an order keeping the children in the custody of the Covingtons until Dec. 31, when a custody hearing will take place. "The fight is on," said Muse.

The Covingtons are members of the Word of Faith Fellowship, a Spindale-based church Muse and other former members describe as a cult. Muse left the group in September.

The suit alleges that Muse has physically and verbally abused her four children, ages 8-15. Last week, church staffer Jayne Caulder read a statement she claimed was given by Muse's oldest daughter, Sarah. The statement alleges that Muse has "abused us all of our lives."

Muse contends that the Word of Faith Fellowship has "brainwashed" her kids. While she admits to past mistakes, including a bout with drug addiction before joining the church in 2000, Muse denies the charges of abuse. Instead, any allegations of abuse should be leveled at Word of Faith Fellowship, according to Muse and former member Holly Hamrick.

Muse, Hamrick and other former members say that church members practice a form of screaming prayer called "blasting," directed at those in the group who have behaved in ways group leaders deem inappropriate. Former members say the idea is to expel evil from the wrongdoer; often, they say, the subject of blasting eventually gags or vomits.

Hamrick said that children under a year old have been subjected to blasting.

The Covingtons' attorney, Tom Hix of Hendersonville, N.C., represented another Word of Faith member in a custody battle two years ago. According to a report by a Rutherford County newspaper at the time, Judge Randy Pool found that children in the church have been "blasted" for hours at a time.

Muse claims she has a nursing degree but was told by church leaders that she would have to work for Kent Covington, owner of Diversified Corporate Technologies. Muse said she was paid $8 an hour to run a plastic injection molding machine.

She lived with her sister, Suzanne Cooper, who remains a church member.

Muse said when she tried to get her children to leave with her in September, Cooper filed a report with the Department of Social Services.

The DSS report, which refers to Muse's problems with drugs and to instances of abuse, is contained within the suit filed by the Covingtons. But, according to Muse, DSS cleared her within two days to take the children, though she declined to allow access to the final report by DSS.

With the help of Sheriff's deputies, she took her children on September 18. The children, Muse recalled, were hysterical over the prospect of leaving Word of Faith Fellowship.

Muse, meanwhile, said she left the church penniless and jobless. She decided to take the children to the Covingtons, who, according to Muse, insisted she sign a private custody agreement. That agreement is referred to in the suit filed Monday.

Spartanburg attorney Ruth Cate, who specializes in family law, said the contract would not likely hold up in court.

Muse saw her children several times a week during September and October. She said that, despite her decision to leave Word of Faith Fellowship, her relationship with the kids remained strong.

"They loved me three weeks ago," she said.

That's when Muse decided to leave Rutherfordton for counseling with Wellspring Retreat, a program that assists former members of cults.

When she returned to get her children and go back to Florida, the children resisted. Muse believes they were "programmed" to place their loyalty with the Covingtons and Word of Faith Fellowship.

Muse asked District Attorney Jeff Hunt last week to order Sheriff Dan Good to see that the children were returned to her. Hunt, however, determined that the dispute was a civil matter.

He said it appeared that the Covingtons had not broken any laws by keeping the children even after Muse demanded their return. Attempts to reach Hunt on Monday were unsuccessful.

A sign on the door at Diversified Corporate Technologies indicated the plant was closed for inventory. Asked if Kent Covington was available, a woman in the front office would not unlock the door. A message left at the Covingtons' residence was not returned. The situation has Muse feeling snake-bitten.

"Judge Powell said if we'd gotten there first, he would have signed our (custody order)," she said. "It seems like they're always one step ahead of us."

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